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Who Owns the Farm? Land Rights Push in China Leaves Women Without a Plot To Stand On

Jessica Mack

As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “women hold up half the sky.” Yet how can they, if they do not even have a plot of land on which to stand?

In the Masterpiece series “Downton Abbey,” Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of an Earl, cannot inherit the eponymous estate because she is a woman. She finds this demeaning and frustrating, but her future will be well taken care of regardless. This isn’t the case for millions of women around the world, who struggle to access, own, and inherit the tiny plots of land on which they live and work.

In China, women actually have equal rights to inherit and own land, yet rarely ever do. A recent survey in 17 Chinese provinces, undertaken by the global land rights group Landesa, found that only 17.1 percent of existing land contracts and 38.2 percent of existing land certificates include women’s names.

A gap-filled land registration system has meant that the country’s  700 million mostly poor and rural farmers often lack the legal documents for the land on which they toil. Rapid urbanization has set in motion a pattern of “land grabs,” depriving an estimated three to four million farmers of their land every year.  While land rights in China remain a broad-scale class issue, of the few that do have legal protection for their land, hardly any are women.

“Women in rural China are still in a vulnerable position,” says Xiaobei Wang, a Gender and Land Tenure Specialist for Landesa. “Most of them are not fully aware of their legal rights on land or the importance of including their names in legal documents so they seldom assert their rights in land registration by requesting that their names be included.”

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These are timely findings given that a nascent land rights revolution in the country has begun. In late-2011, the continued struggles of dispossessed farmers came to a head with an historic village rebellion, signaling to the Chinese government and to the world that something finally had to change. Now, government officials are rolling out a massive initiative to register each plot of land with certificates of ownership in the hopes of protecting poor farmers.

It’s an effort that could dramatically transform China’s class and economic dynamics, and is about time. Yet so far, the planned overhaul does not entail any explicit efforts to include women or address women’s land rights struggles in China. Landesa is working closely with women’s groups in China to make sure that women aren’t left out in the cold.

“There needs to be a clear legal framework for women’s property rights being recorded and to guide practice, there should be regulations which state specifically how that should happen. This should leave less discretion at the local level, where patriarchal beliefs [may guide] decisions,” says Elisa Scalise, who directs Landesa’s Center for Women’s Land Rights.

The inaugural case of their recently-opened Legal Aid Center in China fought for the rights of three daughters to inherit their deceased parents’ land. They won, and they’re hoping this sets a precedent.

But why are women so often left out in the cold when it comes to land rights? It’s not a conundrum unique to Edwardian England or even to China. Worldwide, women produce an equal share of the food – more in regions like Africa, where they produce 80-90 percent of food consumed by households – yet own only one to two percent of all titled land. Women are rarely seen as owners and proprietors in their own right, but rather via a husband, father, or brother. When that “via” disappears, through divorce, death, or any other reason, women are left in the lurch without legal protection or land security.

Sometimes this is due to discriminatory laws that prevent their inheritance, but other times they lose out for more haphazard reasons, like oversight or neglect. It’s not just women who don’t know they have land rights, but government officials, land registrars, and even the media. Case in point: how much of the recent coverage on China’s budding land rights revolution has included a mention of women’s land rights?

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of women’s empowerment efforts on the one hand, and land rights empowerment on the other, the place where they intersect would be occupied by a tiny cadre of organizations, and more often overlooked by both sides. The rights group Action Aid recently argued that “the Millennium Development Goal targets for tackling gender inequality are too narrowly focused, and omit critical issues such as women’s access to land.”

Landesa and others are working a bit against the current, making the case that for many women – especially those in poor and rural areas – land ownership is quite literally significant of having a space in the world, and a foundation on which to grow and develop.

“Having a women’s name on the land title is often a huge game changer within a household and within a community,” said Wang. “First and foremost, it provides a woman with a safety net. Secondly, it provides her with a say within the household and strengthens her ability to steer the proceeds from that land toward the needs of her children, including nutrition and education.”

Land rights are a class issue, but they’re also a gender issue. Efforts to rectify one inequity without taking stock of the other will miss the mark entirely. While Lady Mary Crawley’s inability to inherit her family’s estate is simply part of the “Downton Abbey” plotline, this cannot be the end of the story for millions of women around the world who deserve to own and inherit the earth. As the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “women hold up half the sky.” Yet how can they if they do not even have a plot of land on which to stand?

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